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Philosophy & Literature

What Makes A Book Great?

Colin Stott critiques the critical thinking of Matthew Arnold and F.R. Leavis.

We commonly associate the Victorian era with religious revivalism, yet many underwent a crisis of faith during this period. The poet and critic Matthew Arnold (1822-88) realised that established religion could no longer counter the impact that rapid industrialisation and trade cycles were inflicting on the poor, nor could it resist the incessant drive for material gain amongst the powerful. Religion, for many, was failing to invest life with purpose:

The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d;
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
(From Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold, c.1851.)

Arnold championed literature as the new channel for moral development, convinced of its importance in defining cultural identity and reinforcing social cohesion. He believed that poetry in particular could become the new scripture and elevate literary critics into a new priesthood. His vision introduced an enlightened paternalism into literary criticism, since he expanded the role of critic to include the guardianship of morality and good taste: to introduce, propagate and elucidate great poetry.

Arnold’s criterion for literary greatness was a loftiness of subject matter, style, and purpose. The subject matter should aspire to truth and seriousness, and its style to high diction. In On Translating Homer (1861), he says that it will be found that the grand style arises in poetry when a noble nature, poetically gifted, treats a serious subject with simplicity or severity. But above all, literature’s moral purpose should be guided by the examples of noble characters and their deeds, as recounted in ancient literature. Arnold claimed that the classics contain every role model we’ll ever need.

Arnold’s moral crusade depended upon there being objectivity in taste: that is, in there being absolute standards of literary merit supported by textual analyses and comparisons. Good taste is not a personal matter. To appreciate a text is to recognise or discern its loftiness, and this testifies to your understanding and knowledge. If you disagree with an objective critical verdict, then you are in error, or fail to understand the text. A literary appreciation grounded in objective standards accordingly subordinates subjective reader enjoyment.

One problem with Arnold’s concentration on classical Greek and Roman texts, with their tales of relentless slaughter, treachery, and self-glorification, was the pre-Christian morality they promoted. Moral concerns vary over time and place. Victorian Britain was more interested in, for example, the position of women in marriage, or the conditions of the working class, than in epic crusades to appropriate golden fleeces. So, many contemporary readers were turning to novels such as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Mary Barton (both 1848) as better suited to explore their moral concerns. Such works had contemporary relevance.

George Eliot
George Eliot by Franco̧is D’Albert Durade

Great Writers

The British literary critic F.R. Leavis (1895-1978), writing about a century later, continued to apply Arnold’s principles. He believed that literature should aim to civilise, and that the critic’s principal role was to assess and sometimes disseminate the author's moral outlook. His The Great Tradition (1947) is an examination of the English novel considered as the principal literary form for this role.

Leavis examines four novelists as candidates for greatness: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad. It seems that he thought four novelists sufficed to represent a tradition. The idea of ‘tradition’ suggests a movement, that is, a continuous exchange to which individual writers contribute. What defines Leavis’s tradition? Its subject matter; its style, perhaps; or a common moral preoccupation? Leavis’s answer only begs the question: “…and by ‘great tradition’ I mean the tradition to which what is great in English fiction belongs” (The Great Tradition). The focus on an English tradition also puzzles. It rules out novelists in other languages. Tolstoy was a influential novelist, but is being excluded from a tradition, to which he was surely a contributor.

A philosophy of history that focuses upon greatness seems to guide Leavis’s literary verdicts. It presumes that history is the product of great figures, such as Napoleon and good Queen Bess, and chronicles the impact of individuals upon major events. Such an approach is now questioned. Individuals are important, but now it is more fully recognised that an historical understanding must also focus upon the conditions that make the individual’s actions possible. Social forces shape individuals and the environment in which they operate, and create the opportunities that the Nelsons and Napoleons are able to seize upon.

In singling out the greatness of a few, Leavis implies that he regards them as superior to the rest. Summary dismissals of lesser writers abound in his text. For instance, Arnold Bennett “never seems to have been disturbed enough by life to come anywhere near greatness.” Thomas Hardy, “decent as he is, [as] a provincial manufacturer of gauche and heavy fictions that sometimes have corresponding virtues” (The Great Tradition). Such sweeping attacks inevitably invite counters. Did Henry James’s life ever suffer any disturbances? Don’t Jane Austen’s largely village settings make her a provincial figure? Even George Eliot might have bridled at Leavis’s exclusive focus upon greatness. Her Middlemarch (1871) is subtitled A Study of Provincial Life. It’s ironic that the entire point of her masterpiece should be that history is not the exclusive province of the great. Lesser folk have been significant contributors to its development. Here is her parting tribute to Dorothea Brooke:

“for the growing good of the World is partly dependent on unhistoric acts and, that things are not so ill with you and me as they have been, is half owing to the number who live faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Not So Great

Leavis’s dismissal of lesser writers encourages an unjustified neglect of what is often fine writing. Arnold’s and Leavis’s insistence upon objective standards also divorces a novel’s text from the reader’s experience, and overlooks the fact that reader engagement is necessary for its success. Good writing moves us. We engage with the characters in a well-written novel.

The critic Clive James compared Leavis’s prescriptive approach to that of the school canteen experience of being made to eat-up vegetables. A possible rejoinder is that reader reaction is merely a subjective show of sentiment, and irrelevant to a sound literary appraisal. This familiar stance perpetuates a centuries-old philosophical dogma, whereby every person is some kind of detached organism, surveying inwardly their own realm of private experiences. But this has never been a fair representation of how we actually conduct our lives. If we want to understand others, to discover what it is like to be them, we have to engage with them, either directly or indirectly. If I want to know what it is like to be me, I must set out to do the same: involve myself with others and the world around, then assess the influence I exert and the responses I meet with. Similarly, good novels must invite reader participation before they can tackle Leavis’s higher moral ideals, and to achieve this, the novels themselves must be more than dispassionate descriptions of observations.

Leavis’s preoccupation with greatness also overlooks the influence of lesser writers on his chosen ‘great’ authors, and distorts appraisal of their work. An example might be Fanny Burney, who pioneered the satirical novel form within which Jane Austen wrote. Burney lacked none of Austen’s sharpness and penetration, so any fair critical appreciation of either should include such comparisons.

A focus upon the ‘greats’ also sustains literary snobbery. Associating oneself with ‘great’ works and ‘great’ authors offers an easy route to membership of a literary elite, with pretensions to superior taste and discernment. Placing works on permanent pedestals tends also to blunt independent critical thinking of them, and stifle fruitful debate.

A possible explanation for Leavis’s fixation with greatness might lie in the religious mysteries that Arnold intended literature to replace. Perhaps he believed literary greatness is a type of sacredness, and should evoke a corresponding wonderment or awe.

All this notwithstanding, Leavis does attempt to analyse the concept of greatness and supply some criteria for it. He values a fine sensibility, which includes insightful observation, and characters able to appreciate the nuances of the dilemmas the novel presents. This seems to require great novels to concern themselves exclusively with the affairs of the intelligent or well-educated, and therefore the economically advantaged classes. Yet Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, and scores of other fine novels, fall at this hurdle.

After Jane Austen, it is perhaps Henry James’s work that evinces this quality of fine sensibility most consummately; as James comments on Isobel Archer in his Portrait of a Lady (1881):

“Altogether, with her meagre knowledge, her inflated ideals, her confidence at once innocent and dogmatic, her temper at once exacting and indulgent, her mixture of curiosity and fastidiousness, of vivacity and indifference, her desire to look very well and to be if possible even better, her determination to see, to try, to know, her combination of the delicate, desultory, flame-like spirit and the eager and personal creature of conditions: she would be an easy victim of scientific criticism if she were not intended to awaken on the reader's part an impulse more tender and more purely expectant.”

Unfortunately, James rarely allows his characters the scope to furnish or illustrate such sensibilities with examples the discerning reader may appreciate; the requisite qualities are simply listed. And to give his characters a pure and concentrated sensibility, James has painstakingly detached them from all worldly concerns. Both he and Leavis seem to miss the point that personal interactions reveal character, and that eschewing drama strains reader interest.

Great Characters Required

Further stipulations for greatness include characters that are the product of an informed imagination rather than having been simply lifted from the author’s experience. To illustrate this Leavis traces George Eliot’s (Mary Ann Evans, 1819-1880) transition into greatness. Her early rustic novels fail the test, but she matured to cross the threshold after the Mill on the Floss (1860) to produce the masterpieces of Middlemarch (1871) and Daniel Deronda (1876). Her later characters appear in control of their own destinies, not manipulated to comply with the author’s agenda. Hardy is singled out for failing here; for allowing destiny to control too many of his characters, and for resorting excessively to coincidences.

Not so Henry James. James ensures his characters enjoy unfettered freedom to make their own decisions, usually in their choice of partner. Indeed, accidents or surprises are rare in his work. Instead, his characters move effortlessly without worldly concerns to trouble or vex them. No family obligations, professional duties, or conflicts of interest disturb their serenity. Yet purifying his characters of extra motives drains them of reader interest, too.

Jane Austen (1775-1817) avoided this. She understood the dramatic importance of circumstances on perceptions (such as Lydia’s elopement in Pride and Prejudice, 1813); accidents to display characters in new light (for example, after the fall from Lyme Cob in Persuasion, 1818); and surprise to present spontaneous reactions (such as the final interview between Elizabeth Bennett and Lady Catherine, again in Pride and Prejudice).

The Great & The Good

Most important for Leavis, in common with Arnold, is his insistence upon a seriousness of moral purpose. Leavis is hard upon Dickens for this. Although he finds in Hard Times (1854) “a profounder responsibility, possessing a distinctive creative genius, a sustained and complete seriousness, which is controlled throughout to a unifying and organising significance” (The Great Tradition), Dickens’ other novels earn him the label of a mere ‘entertainer’. Leavis’s treatment of Thackeray is equally short, and a charge of flippancy is aimed at Vanity Fair (1848), suggesting that comic novels are unworthy of serious consideration. Leavis also condemns excessive seriousness. Sermons dressed as morality tales detract from true literary greatness. But why should it fall to the novel to shoulder the responsibility of raising moral concerns at all; and to ensure it does so with a suitably delicate sensibility? An informed debate is often a more effective means of exploring an issue, on abortion, for instance. Good journalism can also make a valuable contribution. And both are preferable to fictional case histories. Moral debates draw on actual testimonies and facts, but novels are fictions: it’s all made-up! So, novels may highlight issues and provoke discussion, but it is unreasonable to expect a fictional narrative to reach a moral resolution.

Although Jane Austen’s novels bear all the hallmarks of comic writing, Leavis regards her as a deeply serious writer. For him it is her moral concerns that elevate her. The formal perfection of Emma (1816) can only be appreciated in terms of the moral preoccupations that characterise the novelist’s own preoccupations, he claims.

It is worth asking here, what were Jane Austen’s moral preoccupations? She clearly must have been ‘disturbed enough by life’ to have escaped the withering criticism Leavis levelled at Bennett.

General moral preoccupations during the first few years of the Regency period she was writing in included the Napoleonic Wars, the price of bread and other staples, the continuing enclosure of land (cutting off the poor from land access), and the recent ending of the slave trade. None of these concerns feature in Austen’s novels. Nor do the lives of servants, who play no major part in her narratives. They are not even incidental to the plot. She shows no more interest in their movements than the working of a hinge when a door is opened.

In fact, Jane Austen did not set out to dismantle the moral fabric of Regency England. She wrote supremely accomplished, entertaining, sharp, but comic novels: no major character dies, no one suffers acutely for long, and all end in the traditional resolution of happy marriages (the original form of comedia). Her satirical targets are limited and familiar: individuals guilty of pomposity, hypocrisy, naïvety; and practices such as arranged marriages and the evaluation of men according to the level of their (unearned) incomes.

Admittedly, Austen does explore some underlying moral preoccupations: parental responsibility, the supervision of young adults, the importance of compatibility in marriage, and the dangers of being misled by first impressions. Worthwhile themes, but common enough, and scarcely substantial enough to earn the accolade ‘great’.

Leavis recognised that because of its greater contemporary relevance, the novel had superseded poetry in discharging the role of moral commentary. So his insistence upon a serious moral purpose exposes his great novels to the vagaries of fashion, as moral preoccupations vary over time and place, and within a society. So although he promotes ‘greatness’ as a permanent attribute of a given novel, its dependence upon moral sensibility leaves it on shakier foundations. We’ve left Jane Austen’s world far behind. Advantageous matches and virgin brides are bygone issues in the West. It is a commonly heard student complaint that “Jane Austen doesn’t speak to me.” A novel that makes the arranging of a half-mile walk into the village a major event is dismissed as irrelevant to contemporary issues. However, it remains important to challenge the idea that a novel must deal with our concerns before we condescend to read it, and to consider whether our preoccupations should be our only concerns. However, Leavis’s quest for a timeless excellence jeopardises the standing of some of the works he considers most worthy.

The Great Tradition

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) exemplifies these difficulties. The Nigerian novelist and essayist Chinua Achebe, writing in 1975, infamously denounced it as a ‘a bloody racist novel’ and as a general slander against Africans: “I am talking about a story in which the very humanity of black people is called in question.” So one of Leavis’s ‘greats’ has become close to being proscribed on moral grounds!

Arguments aiming to defend Heart of Darkness have provoked heated debate. Points include: there is a distinction to be made between a racist author and one who depicts racist characters in his work; it is a novel of its time and we should judge it accordingly; it is a significant part of literary history, an understanding of which is necessary to understand even the issue of racism; the source of grievance lies in the past and not in contemporary attitudes; the novel gives us a character shocked into discovering something about himself and what it is to be human; it chronicles the awakening consciousness of an age; and so on. These comments highlight important principles whose acknowledgement will better inform our appraisal of literature, and perhaps restore its position within the historical context from which Leavis tried to wrest it.

Leavis took up Arnold’s moral crusade for literature and promoted the novel as the form best adapted to continue it. In supporting this attempted transition from a religious to a secular morality, he retained religion’s faith in an absolute authority. In The Great Tradition he assumes the manner of an Old Testament prophet, handing down rigid, timeless precepts as if carved on tablets of stone. But secular morality, and its associated values, is a more complex and flexible affair. It is subject to change and open to negotiation.

It is a further consideration that many of the works that Leavis endorses fail to meet even his own strict standards, and that a serious moral preoccupation is absent from others amongst them. A more primary concern is that he pays insufficient attention to reader engagement and enjoyment, to the creative art and the technical craftsmanship that are the hallmarks of great writing. These are essential to an appreciation of literature and so to its influence on our moral outlook. That is why we continue to be drawn to great books from the past.

© Colin Stott 2024

Colin Stott has recently taken over the running of the Wells Philosophy Society in Somerset.

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